Theory and experiment show that two electromagnetic modes are necessary and sufficient to determine the field nonuniformity within a parallel-plate rf capacitive plasma reactor. These two modes give rise to the standing wave effect and the telegraph effect. The standing wave effect is associated with high frequencies in large reactors where the reactor size is larger than about a tenth of the vacuum wavelength of the rf excitation. The telegraph effect is associated with asymmetric electrode areas, which necessitates the redistribution of rf current along the plasma to maintain rf current continuity. (c) 2006 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.